WILL THEY WIN AGAIN? Or have the times passed coaches Tom Landry of Dallas and Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh by?
ALL IN ALL, IT HAS BEEN A LOUSY year for gods in the NFL. Dallas
Cowboy coach Tom Landry, who has been to five Super Bowls, and
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who has been to four, both are
an unheavenly 2-8. Worse, nobody is fainting from shock. Landry has
lost 22 of his last 30 nonstrike games, and Noll is only .500 (65-65)
since his last trip to the Big Bowl, in January 1980. It looks as if
he'll miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and Landry, for
the third. Another Hall of Fame name, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula,
is 5-5 and seemingly headed for a third consecutive nonplayoff
What's the world coming to when 64% of those responding to a
recent Dallas Times Herald poll want Landry's hat on a plate, and the
guy in New Orleans is being made a saint by the folks on Bourbon
Street? Or when Dolphin fans are grumbling about a Shula defense that
has finished 26th, 26th and 23rd the past three years and are saying,
''Why can't our team be more like Buffalo's?'' Or when Terry
Bradshaw, the quarterback of Noll's finest teams, says, ''Someone is
not doing a very good job, and that someone is Chuck Noll,'' and down
the river Cincinnati's Sam Wyche is suddenly looking like a genius.
Shula, Landry and Noll rank 1, 2, 3, respectively, in career wins
among active NFL coaches. They are 2, 3 and 5 in victories among NFL
coaches dead or alive. They've been to 14 Super Bowls and won eight.
Landry, 64, the only coach Dallas has ever had, is in his 29th season
with the Cowboys. Noll, 56, is in his 20th with the Steelers. Shula,
58, is in his 19th with the Dolphins, after having coached the
Baltimore Colts for seven. All three were winning NFL games before
Mike Shanahan, the Los Angeles Raider coach, got his learner's
permit. One hundred ninety-seven NFL head coaches have come and gone
since Landry was hired. Maybe the story isn't how these guys finally
let things slip, but how in creation they kept it together so long.
Fans in Texas really got to whispering after Dallas blew a
20-point lead against the Philadelphia Eagles three weeks ago. With
two minutes left and the Cowboys ahead by six, Dallas faced
third-and-two on what Landry thought was the Philly 30. So he called
a pass to get his team within field goal range. But on the play,
quarterback Steve Pelluer was called for intentional grounding, which
put Dallas out of field goal range. In fact, the Cowboys had been on
the 23, and a simple dive would have set up the boot. After Dallas
punted, the Eagles went 85 yards to get the win. Ugh.
Is Landry ready for a rocker? He has always butchered names --
Gary Hogenbloom, for one -- and he continues to call the Los Angeles
Raiders the Oakland Raiders. ''Ah,'' says Cowboy general manager Tex
Schramm. ''I remember, even at the height of his success, he'd look
around on the sideline and yell for a player who had been gone for
three years.'' But at least he used to know where the line of
Landry is still in great condition -- he rides an exercise bike 20
minutes a day and lifts weights every other day -- and he still works
long hours, taking game films home and watching them until midnight
and then rising at six. ''I work 65 hours a week,'' his secretary,
Barbara Goodman, told The Dallas Morning News, ''and I barely keep up
No, what Landry-lynchers should gripe about isn't that he lost
track of the line of scrimmage, but that his defense allowed the
Eagles to march 85 yards in two minutes. And that this season's 2-8
start is the Cowboys' worst since 1960, their first year. And that
Herschel Walker seems to be one name Landry completely forgets when
Dallas gets near the goal line. Walker has only one rushing touchdown
this year, while Pelluer has thrown four goal-line or end- zone
In Pittsburgh, they're calling the Steelers the Torn Curtain, and
Noll, who refused to be interviewed for this article, is getting
ripped. Even his own quarterback, Bubby Brister, lit him up two weeks
ago during a Q-and-A session at a banquet. Brister said the Steeler
offense was so predictable that ''we may as well punt on first down
and get it over with.'' He questioned Noll's refusal to use the
shotgun and then threw in: ''Anybody who can rush the passer, call
the stadium -- we need help quick.''
Brister now says he was just trying for laughs, but the truth was
there for anyone to see: Pittsburgh stinks. In a 34-14 drubbing at
home by the Houston Oilers on Oct. 16, the Steelers had two punts
blocked (their 1988 total now stands at five) and jumped offside
seven times, three of them in a row. In 10 games this year Pittsburgh
has rushed for more than 100 yards only five times.
As for Shula, the road isn't so rough right now, but the next
patch of highway looks precarious. The Dolphins have won only two of
their last 13 games against AFC East rivals and are 0-4 against them
this season -- and they have four intradivision games in a row coming
up. While neither Landry nor Noll has a star quarterback, Shula is
blessed with maybe the best, Dan Marino, but the Dolphins' defense is
so bad that Marino continues to write masterpieces in invisible ink.
Against the New York Jets three weeks ago, he threw for 521 yards --
the second-highest total in league history -- and lost.
Of course, to all of this the legends say, So what? ''It means the
NFL draft system works,'' says Landry. ''The timing is about right
for all three of us -- all of us are a little short on personnel.''
Shula echoes Landry: ''This happens to every franchise. It shows the
system works.'' In other words, Pete's Parity doesn't know from
legends. Landry and Shula have a point. Buffalo, New Orleans and
Cincinnati were all gutter-dwellers, and now they're riding high.
While the legends may believe they're victims of an inevitable
down cycle, their critics cite other factors. One trouble with being
a legend is that nobody will say no to you. Before the 1986 season
Schramm hired Paul Hackett, one of the NFL's bright young offensive
thinkers, away from the San Francisco 49ers, but Landry pays less and
less attention to Hackett. The first year, he , spoke to Hackett
during games via headphones. The next year by telephone. This year
seldom if at all.
Shula has taken heat for naming his 29-year-old son, David,
assistant head coach. Former Miami offensive tackle Greg Koch, who's
now with the Minnesota Vikings, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that
Dolphin players resented the young Shula's rank and that ''he should
understand he wouldn't be where he is if it weren't for who he is.''
Such statements outrage Don. ''I think all that is very unfair,'' he
says. ''David helped us get to two Super Bowls.''
Another criticism leveled at the legends is that the game has
passed them by. Noll, for instance, was the last head coach in the
NFL to name a special- teams coach. Until two years ago he was
Pittsburgh's special-teams coach. And while the rest of the league is
into using human moving vans for offensive linemen, Noll still relies
on quick, small men in his famous, sophisticated trap-blocking
scheme. Problem is, sophisticated traps worked on those
unsophisticated defenses of the 1970s but haven't been so hot since.
''We can all outgrow our usefulness,'' says former Steeler
defensive end Dwight White. ''It's possible to get caught up in a
time warp. If you're trying to do the same thing you used to do and
you don't have the same personnel, maybe you're missing the boat.''
Landry finally came around to wall, or area, blocking two years
ago, when Walker arrived -- ''We just haven't perfected it yet,''
Landry says -- but he's still married to the same motion offense he
installed in 1961. What's more, he hasn't backed off much from his
fossilized flex defense. ''Why should I?'' he says. ''It's one of our
The legends' admirers don't buy the game-has-passed-them-by
theory. ''The game hasn't passed anybody by,'' former Steeler
linebacker Jack Ham told The Pittsburgh Press. ''I look at the
Redskins in the Super Bowl, and they must have run 'Countergap' 42
times. . . . It's talent. You have more talent, you're going to win
Schramm: ''We don't have Staubach. We don't have Meredith. Neither
does Noll. It's pretty damn simple. People like these coaches don't
suddenly lose their capabilities.''
Let's say the legends can still coach, they just don't have the
talent. But take a look: What the Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins
don't have that such winning franchises as the Saints, the Bills, the
Washington Redskins and the New York Giants do is a general manager
who has a free hand to decide which players the team signs. ''It's
simple,'' says Washington coach Joe Gibbs of his relationship with
general manager Bobby Beathard. ''Bobby decides who comes to training
camp. I decide who leaves training camp.''
Acquiring players has become too complicated and too demanding for
someone to do as well as to coach, yet each of the three legends
maintains final say over personnel decisions. Since 1974, Noll has
drafted only three players who've made the Pro Bowl. He has never
traded up in a draft. He didn't take a single player from the USFL
and rarely signs men off the waiver wire.
Of the 18 players Landry has drafted in the first three rounds
since 1983, only four are starters. Shula's No. 1 draft choices of
late have been particularly sour. Among them are such nonstars as
linebacker Jackie Shipp ('84), running back Lorenzo Hampton ('85) and
defensive end Eric Kumerow ('88). To be fair, John Offerdahl, a
second-rounder in '86, and Troy Stradford, fourth-rounder in '87,
became AFC Rookies of the Year.
Nonetheless, if Shula had had an autonomous general manager, would
he have traded the rights to Anthony Carter for linebacker Robin
Sendlein, who's now organizing youth athletic programs for the city
of Las Vegas? Would he have traded up in the 1987 draft to get
wideout Scott Schwedes, who has yet to catch his first NFL pass?
Would he have drafted 227-pound linebacker Jay Brophy -- who lasted
two seasons before being released -- in the second round in 1984?
Giving a general manager power means giving up control, and Noll,
Shula and Landry are nothing if not control coaches. Landry, for
instance, is his own offensive coordinator. The legends like to
control their players' heads as well. ''The media cover everything
today, no matter how minute,'' says Koch. ''Players don't like to be
embarrassed in public. The drill-sergeant type is on the way out.''
Noll's heavy hand, according to Bradshaw, has caused an 18-year
rift between them. The perception was that Noll nurtured Bradshaw
through the rough early years in Pittsburgh. ''Bull,'' says Bradshaw.
''He didn't nurture me through anything. He virtually destroyed me.
For five years he played with me like a yo-yo. I was a country boy,
and he didn't like it. I didn't study like Johnny Unitas. I was silly
and I was immature, I know that. He humiliated me in public. I hated
everything about Chuck Noll in my early years.''
The two came to suffer one another during the Steelers' glory
years, but * when Bradshaw's elbow was hurting near the end of his
career, Noll announced, ''Maybe it's time Mr. Bradshaw got on with
his life's work.'' To this day, that remark galls Bradshaw. ''I
thought, Why am I being treated like this?'' he says. ''All I wanted
at the end was a kind word. I won't let him forget it. I didn't want
to go out with this ((imitating Noll's voice)), 'Maybe it's time Mr.
Bradshaw got on with his life's work.' Well, Mr. Noll, maybe now it's
time you get on with yours.''
Raider owner Al Davis might agree with Bradshaw. Davis thinks no
coach should stay on for more than 10 years because they wear out.
History concurs. Since 1932, when the NFL first held a postseason
championship game, George Halas won four NFL titles in his first 11
seasons at the helm of the Chicago Bears but only one in his last 19.
Curly Lambeau of the Packers, Chicago Cardinals and Redskins won two
in his first eight years but only one in his final 14. Steve Owen of
the Giants won two in his first seven years but none in his last 15.
The coach of the NFL champion has been, on average, in his eighth
year. The average age of the winning Super Bowl coach has been 47.3.
Is it a young man's game? Dick Vermeil of the Eagles burned out at
40, John Madden of the Raiders at 42 with an ulcer. Landry has
rebuilt the Cowboys before, but he has never tried it at 64. ''It
takes a lot of youth to rebuild,'' says Bradshaw. Only one coach in
league history has won a championship after having served 12
consecutive seasons with one team -- Landry in his 18th.
Nobody is saying Landry and Noll will be fired soon -- though if
Bum Bright succeeds in selling the Cowboys, a new owner might have
his own ideas as to who should coach the team -- and Shula is
certainly secure in his job. And don't count on any of them quitting.
''You work seven days in a row, sleep at the office three nights a
week, work 27 weekends in a row,'' says Bud Grant, one of the rare
coaches to walk away while still on top. ''You don't see anybody,
hardly read anything. You put some gas in your car, maybe get your
hair cut, but that's about it. It's all you know. So guys want to
coach as long as they can.''
Says Bradshaw, ''When you're a player and can't win anymore, they
let you go -- right then and there. But legendary coaches stay on
forever. Everyone says to Noll, 'You're the best thing that's ever
happened to Pittsburgh.' But for three of the last five years he's
had a losing record. Someone had better get it in gear.''
O.K., say you do get the legends to hang up their golden whistles.
What then? Who then? Said Cowboy defensive back Everson Walls
recently, ''From all these people who want to fire Landry, I want to
know one thing: Who's going to replace him? It's like replacing Vince
Lombardi. I guarantee you that 10 years from now everybody will be
saying, 'Yeah, but this guy is no Tom Landry.' ''